SBJ/June 23-29, 2014/In Depth

Athletic directors talk openly about greater role for agents

For as long as anyone can remember, agents have been considered part of the problem in college athletics. Soon, they might be considered part of the solution.

NCAA rules have long prohibited any type of written or oral agreements between agents and student athletes. Several high-profile cases of improper agent relationships have led to harsh penalties and loss of eligibility.

Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard was among 38 players who went undrafted this year after leaving school early.
Photo by: Getty Images
Now, in a stark reversal, athletic directors are talking openly about ways in which more permissive rules could enable athletes to have greater interaction with agents.

“This is a big step,” Oregon AD Rob Mullens said. “Our athletes need to have the best possible information available to them about turning pro before they make their decisions.”

The idea of granting agents more access on campus, administrators say, is a sign of the times as the NCAA and its member schools move toward a new governance structure. At the heart of that new structure, which will be voted on in August by NCAA leaders, is a desire to put more resources and more flexible rules in place to benefit the athletes.

Restrictions on meals have already been removed, so schools can feed their athletes any amount at any time. Other proposals include a cost-of-attendance stipend, which could amount to another $2,000 to $4,000 a year in the pockets of scholarship athletes, and longer post-eligibility health care.

Those ideas have been on the table for years, though. Only in recent months have ADs and commissioners begun to espouse for more leniency in the NCAA’s rules so that agents can provide feedback to underclassmen looking to turn pro early.

“This whole thing is the result of us not moving our industry into the 21st century sooner,” Ohio State AD Gene Smith said. “We’ve never really — until now — said that our industry needs to change. In the ’90s, we should have started making change.”

And in terms of enabling agents to advise athletes, “They’re already doing it,” Smith said. “It’s just not transparent right now, and that kind of under-the-table dealings is not in the best interests of the student athlete.”

This year’s NFL draft also spurred more discourse about agents. Ninety-eight college players with eligibility remaining declared for the NFL draft this year, the most ever. Thirty-eight of them went undrafted.

In the aftermath of the draft, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive moved the agent issue to the front burner, saying that the athletes aren’t getting the best information. Slive said during SEC meetings last month that NCAA limitations on agent contact are part of the problem. A structure that allows better and more timely communication between athletes and agents — something Slive and others favor — would benefit athletes making that decision to turn pro or stay in school.

Slive’s comments, in addition to the ongoing antitrust litigation, has put the future role of agents front and center in the reform discussion.

“It’s important for these athletes to have the best information about turning pro,” Arkansas AD Jeff Long said. “We
Baseball players can seek consultation from advisers, but not agents.
Photo by: Getty Images
want them to progress toward a degree and if they’re able to go pro, then go, and we’ll provide as much information as possible before they go pro. But when you see the numbers going pro, and then going undrafted, that means there’s a lot of bad information out there.”

What form this permissive legislation takes remains to be seen. At the very least, ADs say, they would like to see athletes get feedback from agents, in addition to their own coaches.

Baseball players, as early as high school, are able to seek consultation from advisers as they determine whether to go to college or turn pro, if they’re drafted.

But there’s currently a distinction. Those advisers cannot cross the line to become an agent, who then negotiates on behalf of the athlete. The adviser must stay in the background during those negotiations.

“The problem with the baseball model is … everybody knows what is going on,” said veteran NFL player agent Peter Schaffer. “[Baseball agents] are not advisers, they’re agents. I don’t like the fact that agents have to hide in the shadows. You shouldn’t have to whisper in the father’s ear while he is negotiating with the general manager of a major league baseball team who has been negotiating contracts for 25 years.”

One AD suggested that the NCAA or conferences should create advisory boards, which would include agents. Those boards would funnel draft information to the athletes.

In football and basketball, the college coaches typically gather information from pro scouts and general managers to determine an athlete’s draft value. That method is problematic as well, because a coach advising an athlete to stay in school could be perceived as acting in his own best interests, not the athlete’s.

“Perhaps by creating a mechanism to do it above the table, we can have better outcomes,” Kansas State AD John Currie said. “We’re having too many athletes giving up their educational opportunities and making some bad decisions. That’s a real issue. Nationally, you see student athletes falling victim to whatever they want to hear, and you have to worry about the perception of conflict of interest in these situations.”

Throughout the NACDA convention in Orlando earlier this month, the topic of additional student benefits was omnipresent. None of the eight ADs interviewed for this story — all from schools in the five power conferences — opposed a greater role for agents. NACDA is the trade association that represents ADs.

A survey in May of more than 90 ADs in SportsBusiness Journal showed that the majority of administrators want to find a way to give their athletes more exposure to the agents who will one day be representing them. Nearly three-quarters of ADs — 74 percent — favor athletes using advice from agents to make decisions about turning pro.
From the comments posted in the survey, ADs believe that a more structured system could benefit the athletes.

“There are many people in athletics who believe there should be more flexibility when it comes to agent representation,” Arizona AD Greg Byrne said at the NACDA convention. “The challenge is that schools get criticized for trying to keep a young athlete in school. At the same time, agents are most interested in trying to secure the athlete as a client. You hope that any advice will be in the best interest of the athlete.”

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